Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 January 2020
The error theory of moral judgment says that moral judgments, though often believed to be objectively true, never are. The tendency to believe in the objectivity of our moral beliefs, like the beliefs themselves, is rooted in objective features of human psychology, and not in objective features of the natural world that might exist apart from human psychology. In naturalized epistemology, it is tempting to take this view as the default hypothesis. It appears to make the fewest assumptions in accounting for the fact that humans not only make moral judgments, but believe them to be, at least some of the time, objectively true. In this paper I argue that from an evolutionary perspective, the error theory is not the most parsimonious alternative. It is simpler to suppose that mental representations with moral content arose as direct cognitive and motivational responses to independent moral facts.
1 Mackie, J.L.Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 30–46Google Scholar, and Ruse, MichaelTaking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 252–6Google Scholar. Mackie, traces this view back to Hume in Hume's Moral Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 71–3, 121-3, and 147-50CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Gilbert Harman's version of the error theory is discussed below; see note 13.
2 For the first argument, see Waal, Frans deGood Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; for the second, see Campbell, RichmondIllusions of Paradox: A Feminist Epistemology Naturalized (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 47-9, 70-9, and 169–75Google Scholar.
3 John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (New York: Norton, 1995), 132.
5 Dewey, “Evolution and Ethics,” Early Works, 1882-1898, vol. 5 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), 34–53Google Scholar, reprinted in Evolutionary Ethics, ed. Nitecki, M.H. and Nitecki, D.V. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 95–110Google Scholar. (First appeared as an article in The Monist in April of 1898, 321-41.) Dawkins’ official view, of course, is that it is our genes that are selfish, not us. But he is not always so careful, nor are other sociobiologists. See the quote on p. 6 of Good Natured and the discussion on pp. 13-20.
6 Ironically, in an article eleven years earlier to the one that is the focus of Ryan's discussion, Dewey himself makes a similar claim against those who, before him, were arguing for the possibility of an evolutionary ethics, namely, that they illicitly took the existence of moral order in human social relations as both explanans and explanandum. See his “Ethics and Physical Science,” The Early Works, 1882-1898, vol. 1 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 216-7. (This article originally appeared in 1887.)
7 De Waal, conversation. The worry here is that while the behaviour of chimps may be rule governed, they themselves might not be consciously following any. rules.
9 Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 304-24.
12 For discussion on this point see Wright, Larry “Functions,” Philosophical Review 82 (1973): 139–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology: An Anthology, ed. Sober, Elliott (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), 347–68Google Scholar; Kitcher, Philip “Function and Design,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18, ed. French, Peter AUehling, Theodore E. Jr. and Wettstein, Howard K. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 379–97Google Scholar, reprinted in The Philosophy of Biology, ed. Hull, David L. and Ruse, Michael (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 258–79Google Scholar; and Godfrey-Smith, Peter “Functions: Consensus Without Unity,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 74 (1993): 196–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar, also reprinted in The Philosophy of Biology, 280-92.
13 The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), see esp. chaps. 1, 2 and 5.
14 Harman, 62. I have changed Harman's own misleading wording of this point, according to which the superego itself is a fiction; what he surely means is that the belief that the dictates of the superego ought to be obeyed is fictitious, rather than the superego itself.
16 Gauthier, DavidMorals by Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 187-9, 326-9, and 337–9Google Scholar.
18 “Evolutionary Ethics and Moral Theory,” Journal of Value Inquiry 30 (1996): 531-45. In addition to distinguishing between Kantian and agent-neutral hypotheses about a human moral capacity grounded in evolution, this paper also develops a rudimentary typology of possible systemic errors in human systems of moral belief.
19 Waal, DeGood Natured, 212–4Google Scholar; Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously, 234 and 239-42. Interestingly enough one gets the same graduated view of sympathy in Nell Noddings’ attempt to work out the sort of contextual ethics suggested in the work of Carol Gilligan; see Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)Google Scholar and Gilligan, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)Google Scholar. That this is not the best way to work feminist concerns into an empirical theory of the human capacity for morality is argued by Campbell, Illusions, chap. 9.
20 My apologies to that repository of American moral wisdom, Der Bingle, and to all those apes who find some amount of comfort in the knowledge that they are not really monkeys. My thanks to Richmond Campbell for pushing me to be clearer where my argument was murkiest. The argument of this paper is directly related to the argument of an earlier paper (note 10) written by John Collier and myself.